JERUSALEM, Dec. 27 (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak may lose his biggest coalition partner, potentially leaving his government with a minority in the Knesset during peace negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians.
The Shas Party’s announcement Monday that it is pulling out of Barak’s government came against the backdrop of an ongoing dispute between the government and Shas over funding for the fervently Orthodox movement’s educational network.
Shas is seeking some $25 million to help out its debt-plagued school system. The education and finance ministries are conditioning the transfer of funds to a commitment from Shas to reform the administration of the network.
Coming on the eve of crucial Knesset votes to pass next year’s state budget, the move drew suggestions that it is a political ploy. .
Shas leader Eli Yishai vehemently denied this charge.
“I am not trying to pull anything off. If I wanted to play games, I could have done so a week or two weeks ago,” Yishai told reporters.
The decision to withdraw from the coalition was not expected to take effect for at least three days. Under Israeli law, the resignation of ministers takes effect only 48 hours after submission of their letters. In addition, Yishai said he had agreed to Barak’s request for another 24 hours to try to resolve the crisis.
The Shas decision comes at a politically sensitive time for Barak.
In addition to trying to pass a budget, Barak is also in the midst of trying to rally support around diplomatic moves with Syria and the Palestinians.
Barak brought Shas, the third-largest parliamentary faction with 17 members, into the coalition with the hope that its politically moderate views would help build a broad-based consensus for promised peace moves.
Shas’ departure would be a blow to that objective. It could also leave Barak more vulnerable to ideological strains with the National Religious Party, which is opposed to a withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
Shas’ departure would leave Barak’s coalition with a parliamentary minority of 51 in the 120-seat Knesset.
But even with Shas in the opposition, it is unlikely the government would fall, as Barak could rely on support from the Arab and secular parties outside the coalition.
Knesset member Yossi Paritzky of the secular-rights Shinui Party on Monday said his six-member Shinui faction would vote for the budget and accompanying spending bills.
“We believe our duty is to provide a ‘safety net’ for secular rights, so this haredi blackmail will not continue,” Paritzky told Israel Radio.
Meanwhile, Israeli President Weizman said Barak should use the opportunity to expand his coalition further.
But the Likud Party, which engaged in coalition negotiations with Barak during the formation of the government, said it is not interested.
“I think the opportunity was blown at the beginning of the coalition negotiations,” Likud Knesset member Meir Sheetrit told Israel Radio. “If Shas leaves the government, we should stay in the opposition” and work together “to bring the government down.”